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Are sustainable aviation fuels the future of flying?

Reaching a net zero emissions target by 2050 will require innovation, particularly within the transport sector. SAFs could be the answer to cleaner, greener aviation.

I’ll be honest, I love planes. They take us on holidays, get us closer to the people we love, and give us a fleeting bird’s eye view of the world below. They provide a chance to switch off with our favourite playlists, take a nap, or watch a couple of films – plus, they’re fast.

But spanning long distances at such speed comes at great cost to the environment, with 2.5 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions coming from airplane fuel alone.

Given that there over 9,700 planes in the sky at any given time, you can only imagine the amount of fossil fuels being burned as you read this, releasing earth-warming chemicals into our atmosphere.

With that in mind, being a frequent flier doesn’t sound like such a flex, does it? Maybe it could be, if there was a way to get from A to B carbon neutrally. I bear good news, Gold Members – there is.


The magic of sustainable aviation fuels

Unbeknownst to most, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) were first trialled in 2008. Instead of fossil fuels, SAF are made from waste materials like cooking oils, discarded animal fats, and even solid waste from homes and businesses, such as recycled paper and food scraps.

Once these renewable energy sources have been transformed into liquid, they are then mixed with kerosene to make a half-and-half blend of SAF and traditional fuels. This process is way cheaper than obtaining fossil fuels, and weirdly it works perfectly to power airplanes with a significantly smaller carbon footprint.

To date, SAF has powered over 150,000 planes – that’s a little over two weeks’ worth of flights. Admittedly, it’s a humble number since the first flight thirteen years ago, but the industry is still growing.

Meeting emission reduction goals by the target date of 2050 will require huge commitments and a lot innovation (hello, COP27) and switching out fossil fuels for SAFs has been recognised as a sure-fire way to do so.

SAFs can reduce the current carbon emissions produced by air travel by 80 percent. And when SAF is made exclusively from plants, the carbon absorbed during the plant’s growth is the same amount released when burnt inside a jet engine – making it virtually carbon neutral.

So what’s the delay?

Last year, the first helicopter fuelled by a 100 percent SAF successfully took to the skies. But like many solutions to climate change, having the answers doesn’t always mean immediate, widespread implementation.

Producing SAF requires a lot of energy – think of all the plants that need growing, animals that need raising, and discarded waste that needs collecting. To foster these materials in a ‘green’ way, companies will need access to hydro, solar, or wind power to make SAF truly sustainable.

At COP26, it was agreed that manufacturing SAF should not disrupt or compete with food production for land use and water supply. In addition to these guidelines, the International Civil Aviation Organisation set targets for making all aviation clean by 2050 – which will require 35 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel.

Both commercial airplane manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, have agreed to a partnership with fuel companies to develop SAF production processes moving forward.

On top of this, Emirates Airlines has agreed to conduct a commercial test flight using 100 percent sustainable aviation before the year is up, to help support the advancing of this sector.

Perhaps flying at 37,000 feet on nothing but vegetable-based oil seems scary to some, but reaching net-zero within the next thirty years could see us adapting to a ton of things previously unimaginable.

As long as it’s tried and tested, the only question I’ll be asking is: when can I book my ticket?

 

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